Study Shows How Google Tracks People Even When They’re Not Deliberately Using Its Services

Even if you don’t interact with Google on purpose, odds are the advertising giant has built a digital profile of you, according to a report by media industry group Digital Content Next.

Google, part of Alphabet, has settled lawsuits over privacy abuses before and is facing new ones now, in the wake of an Associated Press investigation of Google location tracking. Earlier this month, Google tweaked some of the language it uses to describe its location tracking, in response to the AP investigation.

The report, conducted by computer scientist Douglas Schmidt at Vanderbilt University with support from Digital Content Next—a trade body that regularly criticizes Google—noted that Google collected twice as much “passive” data as active data.

Passive data refers to information gathered in the background while someone uses Google’s Android or a Google app such as Maps, or browses a webpage that relies on Google-owned tools. Active data would include the contents of a search sent through Google.com, for example.

Schmidt reset Android and iOS mobile phones and set them up with a new Google account to record typical tracking behavior on a brand-new user. He found that the Android operating system sent location information 340 times in the first 24 hours, even when the the test user did not touch the phone. The iOS operating system sent no “appreciable” data if the user did not interact with the phone.

Once the test user began a normal day, such as dropping kids off at school and going to work, the iOS device sent Google about half as much information as did the Android device. Website publishers and advertisers collected most of that information through tools such as Google Analytics and AdWords.

Schmidt also wrote in the report that Google can connect activity from so-called anonymous browsing modes with signed-in activity. He did not accuse it of doing so, though, and in a statement provided to The Washington Post, Google denied that it connects anonymous activity with identifiable advertising cookies.

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